“Advent Then and Now”

Romans 13:11-14 (NIV); Mt 24:36-44 (MSG)  
South Presbyterian Church – December 1, 2013 – ADVENT 1
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift


       A little over two years ago now, a lot of us in this church covenanted to read together this book called The Story.  How many of you did that? How many of you here read The Story? It’s the Bible, with passages taken from the New International Version and narrative written to connect the Biblical passages so that in 31 chapters, the reader goes from Genesis through Revelation … the first book of the Bible to the last. It reads like a novel, just one, continuous, connected story. And the way it’s written is designed to emphasize the fact that God is always reaching out to be in relationship with us. No matter what e humans do, God is faithful.

        Well, while we were reading and discussing The Story, I was struck by the predominant feeling around the time we hit January and February. We started reading in September and we did a chapter a week except during Advent. And by January and February, there was a really strong feeling … an almost PALPABLE feeling about two things. Does anybody remember what they were?

        Well, one was that we were all pretty tired of reading about wars and people forgetting what they’d learned from God. It seemed like an endless loop … humanity messes up … God forgives … we get it right for a while but then we forget … we mess up some more … God forgives … and so on, generation after generation. That was one thing that bothered us because it was ENDLESS. And it was hard for us imagine it, but we KNEW that they were going to mess up yet again!

        But the OTHER thing that I heard you say for WEEKS?  “When do we get to Jesus?” “Enough with these wars. When do we get to Jesus?” “I can’t read about one more person getting slaughtered. When do we get to Jesus?”

We were two-thirds of the way through the book before Jesus was born. And that’s about true of the Bible.  It takes us two-thirds or almost three-quarters of the way through the whole Bible before we get to the birth of the Messiah.

        People were waiting a LONG time.

Now I bring this up because in a smaller or shorter sense, what we were experiencing in our frustration and our LONGING to get to the Jesus chapter is EXACTLY what the Hebrew people were feeling in a much LARGER sense about waiting for the Messiah.

        They had been waiting and waiting AND WAITING for their king to be born. And this king would lead them both militarily back to a position of authority and power, and spiritually, to a deeper relationship with God. So whether we’re singing our first hymn (Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set thy people free)  or our NEXT hymn (O Come, O Come, and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears), we are trying to RECAPTURE that sense of having the long wait for Jesus. We try to experience in four weeks the sense of LONGING … of frustration over continuing to come close but just not quite get it right – this relationship with God. FINALLY, we get to that part of our story where Emmanuel … literally, “God is with us” … where God IS with us and shows up as a tiny baby on Christmas.

        Well, today’s readings give us an even DIFFERENT take on this whole Waiting with Hope theme that is our focus as we start a new year in the life of the church. In the life of THIS church, it is an EXCITING time of waiting. … Waiting to hear what developers propose so that we can have a glimpse of where God is leading us for the next part of our journey.

        We want to KNOW. We are EXCITED over the possibilities, but we’re not THERE yet. We live in the present and begin this year when we will celebrate our 165th anniversary as a little worshiping community, and so we are AWARE and living in the MOMENT by purchasing new HYMNALS that we are using now but which we will dedicate later in the year, by the way.

        Excited, but we’re not THERE yet. Anticipating, but we’re not THERE yet. PREPARING … but … we’re not THERE yet, and that’s how the people of Jesus’ time felt, and to really GET what these two passages are about, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Christians. Paul’s people (the early Roman Church) was being persecuted. People were being taken and thrown in with lions in the coliseum.  Persecuted … heck, they were being slaughtered – LITERALLY eaten alive.

        And so Paul … who had been the LEAD persecutor of Christians until he had a powerful, mystical experience with the Spirit of the resurrected JESUS and it must’ve been powerful because it changed his whole life – public AND private … This guy Paul says what we KNOW most of the Jesus followers were feeling and believing in those decades right after the Resurrection:  He’s coming back.

He IS returning and it’s going to be any day now. 12 The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. … Why?  Because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.  The waiting period is just about over. Jesus is coming back for REAL … and the early Christians thought it would happen in their LIFETIME.

        And then the Gospel Reading from Matthew.  … saying pretty  much the same thing (but written a couple of decades after Paul’s letter) … says he’s coming. We don’t know when; we don’t know how, We don’t know the exact day and hour. No one knows that, not even heaven’s angels, not even the Son. Only the Father knows.

        But we are supposed to be watchful … WAITING.

        I heard a quote the other day:  “God is slow to act and humans are impatient.”

        “God is slow to act and humans are impatient.”

        I don’t know who said it, but it’s really true. GOD can take all the time in the world because there IS no time to God. What was, IS … and shall be FOREVER. Time is a HUMAN construct. So the idea of “WAITING” meant something different in the ancient world than it does today. TODAY we get impatient if we have to wait for our computer to back-up, or for a picture to download. We think OUR TIME is valuable and we shouldn’t have to WAIT.

        Back then, time belonged to GOD. Things happened “in GOD’S time,” not ours. And so waiting was what someone did while they watched and looked for signs of all of God’s details falling into place. There as anticipation … much as when we were reading The Story and wanted to get to the Jesus parts.

        And I HOPE that’s what some of us are feeling today … about our future here at South, but also about CHRISTMAS. It’s coming. We need to be prepared.

        But there’s a THIRD thing that we are waiting and looking for, too, and that’s the little SOMETHING NEW that God is sending us to feel about our relationship with God. There’s always some new way that our Creator wants to reach out to us. We saw that in The Story. God never gives up … either with the People of God or with us, individually.

        The thing about WAITING is that it implies HOPE.  It implies that we are waiting for SOMETHING … we are HOPEFUL that SOMETHING is coming to us. In THIS case, it’s Jesus. But not just Jesus, the baby born 2,000 years ago. In THIS case, it’s the birth of something NEW and we don’t know what it IS yet.

        Something new … something wonderful and exciting … something BEAUTIFUL. As a metaphor, think about how you’ve felt when you’ve held a newborn … something filled with POTENTIAL. 

        THAT’s what Advent is all about. And we are going to anchor that hope in our Lord’s Supper in a few moments.

        It’s another way that God reaches OUT to us … wanting to be closer … giving us yet ANOTHER way to experience our CONNECTION … to God, but also to each OTHER.

        There are many, many different ways to experience this closeness. Different churches envision the closeness in different ways. If you grew up Catholic, you were taught that the bread and wine BECOME the body and blood of Jesus – not to practice cannibalism but because ALL of the mystery religions in that day used that language to symbolically help students “take in” all that their teachers stood for through a symbolic meal.

        Baptists envision the closeness as purely SYMBOLLIC. The meal is just a meal where Jesus said, “Remember me when you do this.”

        But for us as Presbyterians, we believe that the power of the Holy Spirit is so great that it crosses all dimensions. At the time of Holy Communion, we are, in some Mystical way (that’s Mystical with a capital “M”) moved BEYOND just being HERE … we are ALSO in the presence of Jesus, himself. This is CHRIST’s table and we are invited to HIS table. You don’t get invited to somebody’s table but … oh … sorry … they’re not there? No. Doesn’t happen. He’s the host. He invites us. He’s HERE waiting for us.

        And there we are again… WAITING.  He’s WAITING for us … he won’t coerce us … he won’t FORCE us … he won’t TRICK us or GUILT us into being with him. He’s just offering us free food and refreshment for our soul.

And then he waits. For SOME of us, he waits … and waits … and. He. Waits. Some of us have very long Advents until we allow his Spirit to be born within us … allow him to take root in our lives.But he doesn’t go anywhere because God is ever-faithful.

And so, my friends … as we begin this season of waiting – waiting with HOPE … waiting to see what the year ahead holds for us as the church and us as the People of God … let us prepare our hearts and minds to come to Christ’s table to be nourished for our journey.     Amen.



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